Updated: Nov 21
Table of Contents
About the Author - Dr. Angela Caveney
As a Clinical Psychologist with a Ph.D. and over a decade of higher education under my belt, you'd think I'd have life pretty much all figured out.
In fact, I do have a pretty great life, but, for a period of about 12 years I found myself constantly searching for my "purpose" and wondering if I was doing enough of the "right" things and living up to my fullest potential.
I took all kinds of "find your purpose" courses, read tons of personal development books and even hired a life coach, but it wasn't until I identified, defined and created a strategy to align my life with my core personal values that everything just started to easily and naturally fall into place.
I'm proof that uncovering your core personal values can truly be the key to unlocking happiness and transforming your life and your relationships. Living in alignment with these values is like having a secret recipe for happiness, authenticity, and a life filled with purpose.
Interested in discovering your own core personal values?
Well, you're in luck. In this article, I've outlined my exact, step-by-step process. It will take some reflection and effort, but, trust me, it is time well spent. Once you have a clear compass to guide you through life's countless choices, you'll be well on your way to easily living an authentic life filled with fulfillment and purpose.
Let's get going!
What Are Core Personal Values?
Core personal values, also known as "fundamental beliefs" are the relatively stable, key principles that guide our attitudes, behaviors and decisions. In short, they define who we are and how we show up in the world. They are often alternately referred to as an "internal compass", "guiding principles" or a "north star".
Because core personal values are the essence of who we are at our core, they, by definition, remain consistent throughout the different roles we play in our daily lives. For example, if one of your core personal values is loyalty, being loyal would be very important to you in both your personal and professional life.
Each of us has core personal values, whether we are overtly aware of them or not.
Every day, we automatically make judgments and decisions based on our values. People who live in harmony with their core values, but who are not consciously aware of what they are, for example, may report that they make their (good) decisions based on a "gut feeling".
In fact, what these people are actually doing is making decisions that align with their fundamental beliefs, despite the fact that their awareness of the value is still at a subconscious level.
"Bad" decisions have the opposite effect. They leave us feeling a bit "off" or as if something is "wrong" even though we may not understand exactly why.
Do Core Personal Values Change?
Each person's true TOP 3 core personal values are relatively stable over time, but it is possible that they may change somewhat over very long periods of time (think decades) as our priorities in life very slowly change.
A simple example of this is that a younger person may have "achievement" as a core personal value, whereas this may be less important to that same person as they prepare for the empty nesting phase of life or retirement. (Though it's likely that this person would still highly value achievement and simply find new avenues for achievement.)
If, after identifying (using the process outlined below) your top 3 personal core values, you find that one (or more) doesn't apply to all circumstances of your present day-to-day life; or that this value has not been consistent over the past 10 years or more, it's likely that this value (while still important to you) is NOT one of your top 3 fundamental beliefs.
9 Benefits of Identifying and Defining Your Core Personal Values
As already mentioned, I am arguing that identifying and overtly defining our core personal values is absolutely foundational to living a happy, authentic and purposeful life. Life becomes much easier when you acknowledge your fundamental beliefs and when you make plans and decisions that honor them.
Here are my top 9 benefits to identifying and defining your core personal values.
#1. We understand ourselves better. When we become truly aware of our core personal values, we gain insight into what drives us, what inspires us, what success in life means to us and what brings us genuine fulfillment.
#2. Decision making is easier and more effective. Awareness of our core personal values makes it easier to confidently make decisions that align with our deepest convictions and our overall vision for our lives.
#3. Our actions are more purposeful. Understanding our core personal values helps us define who we are and motivates us to take action on things that are truly important to us. This gives our actions conviction and shapes our identity, leading to more impactful action and purpose.
#4. Our closest relationships improve. Understanding both your own and others' core values can dramatically improve the quality of your most important relationships.
For example, my top 3 core personal values are connection, growth and impact. My husband's fundamental beliefs are balance, stability and achievement. Once we realized this, I stopped nagging him about why he stayed in a high paying, high status, but very boring job; and he finally understood why I spend all my free time volunteering and learning new things with friends.
#5. Making friends becomes easier. Making friends in midlife is difficult, but when your core values are well developed, people will be drawn to you because you’ll show up as someone who is confidently grounded in self-understanding. When we are in tune with our fundamental beliefs, we exude a sense of authenticity that resonates with those around us. This authenticity forms the basis of genuine connections and fosters a sense of trust and respect in our interactions with others.
#6. Effective goal setting is easier. I'm a bit of a goal setting nerd. I love creating quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly (!) goals. However, goal setting for longer time periods is more difficult.
Where do you want to be 1 year, 5 years, 20 years and "someday"? These questions can be intimidating and most people have no idea where to start. But if you (you guessed it) start with your personal core values, they become your guiding star helping you choose goals that truly align with what is most important to you.
#7. Setting healthy boundaries is easier. Moreover, identifying and embracing our core fundamental beliefs empowers us to set boundaries that safeguard our well-being and honor our principles. We become less susceptible to external pressures and societal expectations that may veer us off our authentic path.
#8. We develop resilience. Furthermore, aligning with our core values enhances our resilience in the face of adversity. Our values provide steadfast anchors amidst life's storms, enabling us to navigate challenges with grace and fortitude. As a result, we experience greater emotional well-being and inner peace, knowing that we are living in harmony with our deepest convictions.
#9. We are happier. There are untold numbers of books, articles and podcasts dedicated to finding happiness. This is all very complicated, but my preferred happiness equation is simple. When our decisions and actions align with our deepest held beliefs - we are happier.
5 Steps to Identifying and Defining Your List of Core Personal Values
I hope you're convinced that identifying and defining your core personal values is worth the effort. Now let's get on with it.
Identifying your core personal values is a process of introspection and self-discovery. It involves reflecting on your beliefs, examining your priorities, and discerning what truly matters to you at the deepest level.
Below is my suggested step-by-step process for identifying and defining your fundamental beliefs.
Step #1. Reflect. Get introspective. The method of introspection you choose is entirely up to you. Journaling is the most common technique. I enjoy what I call "thinking time" where I sit quietly and just let my thoughts run wherever they may, jotting down only bullet points as they arise.
Others enjoy thinking as they take walks or run. The method is not important so long as the practice you choose creates space for introspection and self-exploration, enabling you to gain clarity on the principles that define you.
The goal is to unravel the complicated tapestry of your life (and who you truly are at your core) by bringing the most important themes to the forefront of your consciousness.
Here are specific things to think about...
Reflect on some of the most significant and meaningful moments in your life. (The more time you can spend on this the better. This part of the process should be done over a period of weeks, not in a single day.)
When have you felt the most...
Alive and excited?
Fulfilled and satisfied?
Proud? What did you achieve? Why was this important?
In a "flow" state? (Where you lose time because you're so engrossed in what you're doing.)
Angry? What about this situation was so upsetting to you?
What are the most challenging decisions you've had to make?
What you enjoy doing so much you would do it for free?
What inspires you?
What moves you to action? What makes you emotional? Why?
Who do you admire. What do they do? What do they stand for? (This can include public figures whom you admire and even fictional, storybook/movie characters.)
How do you want people to see you? What words do you want people to use when they describe you?
Step #2. Review your notes. Look for patterns and consistencies. What themes emerge? Perhaps you will discover that the moments when you felt most alive and excited all involved creative expression, or that the times when you were most proud were all connected to moments of overcoming challenges.
Step #3. Review (and re-review) a comprehensive list of primary core values.
Now that you've spent some time openly brainstorming (and priming your brain to think) about what's important to you, you're ready for this next step.
Download and print out this List of Primary Core Values.
Read each core value on the list and cross off the values are not EXTREMELY important to you
Repeat this process (you will need to go through the values list several times) until you're down to less than 10 values.
The goal is to ultimately decide on 3 primary core values. If this is easy for you, great! You're done. If you're like most of us, however, it will be difficult to narrow down to only 3.
Here are some tips for cutting your core values list from 10 (ish) to 3.
Tip #1. Keep in mind that you're after the values that you already truly care about, not the values that you think you SHOULD hold most dear or that others expect of you. (For example, women often feel obliged to choose "love" and "family".)
Tip #2. Also keep in mind that if you don't choose a particular value ("honesty", for example), it doesn't mean that it's not important to you. It just means that it's not something that fires you up and DRIVES you at your core.
Tip #3. Review the words remaining on your core values list. Can they be consolidated? Is there a broader term that you can use to include more than one once you define the value for yourself? (I consolidated my values of learning and adventure into "Growth", which I define as learning and doing new things. I also consolidated my values of conservation and relationships into "Connection", which I define as connection to people, animals and nature.)
Step #4. Create your own definitions and personal mission statement. Spend some time thinking and writing out (yes - you must actually write it out!) what each value really means to you. You can define your fundamental beliefs in any way that speaks to you. The only "wrong" answer here is to not be true to yourself.
Also , create a short, but meaningful personal mission statement. It should be something you can easily memorize and repeat. (For example, mine is "Every day, I seek out meaningful connections, growth opportunities and ways to have a positive impact on the world.")
Step #5. Step away. Return and reevaluate. Set your values list aside for a few days. Let the random thoughts flow in naturally. Jot down thoughts as you have them. Come back to your values list. Tweak your definitions and mission statement. Revisit the printed list of all the core values if needed. Do this until you feel confident that you've identified and defined your truest values.
7 Practical Strategies to Live in Alignment with Your Core Personal Values
Identifying and defining your core personal values is a huge step, but to reap the true benefits of your efforts, you have to take practical steps to incorporate this way of thinking into your life.
Here are my top 7 strategies...
#1. Keep your core personal values top of mind. Once you’ve narrowed down your list of 3 primary fundamental beliefs, it’s time to commit to them. Be sure your values are visible wherever you go, whether that’s a poster on your office wall, a note on your car dashboard, or the ever popular sticky note on the bathroom mirror. Make a practice to read them out loud each day. Create daily affirmations. (E.g., "I am creative" - "Today, I will be kind to everyone I see." - "I am a generous person.")
#2. Reflect and journal at the end of each day. This doesn't have to be a long process. Even 10 minutes is helpful. I recommend using 3 different colors for your different primary values. You'll likely notice a pattern whereby the days that you were able to do more things that nurtured your core fundamental beliefs are your "best" days.
#3. Make an effort to consciously add more activities that are aligned with your core values each day. No excuses. You can do this, you just may need to get creative.
For example, during COVID I was living overseas and it was difficult to find the level of connection I need to remain happy. My solution was to exchange long WhatsApp messages with friends from home. It wasn't anywhere near the level of connection I'm used to and enjoy, but it did help and I found my mood improved on the days that I the made an effort to do this.
I also listened to audio recordings of thunderstorms, birds and forests at night to help satisfy my need for connection with nature when I couldn't leave my apartment for 4 months!
#4. Cut out the unaligned activities. Similarly, make efforts to remove activities from your daily life that are either in conflict with or just take up space that could be filled with more aligned activities. This process will take time. Be patient and just continue to make progress by chipping away these activities as you are able.
#5. Implement a decision making strategy. Living in alignment with our core personal values makes navigating life's complexities with clarity and conviction much easier. When faced with choices and dilemmas, we can use our values as a compass that steers us.
One of my favorite, practical strategies is to rate (more important) decisions on a scale of 1-10 for each of my 3 core values. In order to decide to do something, the choice must score at least an 8/10 on at least 2 of my 3 core values.
For example, you may be wondering, should I start my own business in midlife? Rate this decision from 1-10 for each of your values. If your fundamental beliefs are learning, achievement and leadership, starting your own business might be a great idea. If your values are serenity, financial stability and safety, it's probably a pretty terrible idea.
#6. Create aligned long term goals. When you set goals that closely align with your deepest aspirations, you'll be more excited about and motivated by these goals because you know they will lead to a sense of fulfillment and purpose. I find that my longer term (5 year, 10 years and "someday") goals really help to keep me jumping out of bed in the morning.
I also find that setting goals with the most important people in my life (e.g., husband and colleagues) creates a fun sense that we are working together toward something really big and exciting. (This can really help with keeping long-term relationships interesting and fresh.)
With your core values in mind, imagine the future. Where do you want to be? What do you want normal daily life to look like? What would your perfect day look like? How can you design your future life such that it feeds your fundamental beliefs?
For example, if one of your core values is freedom, your longer term goals need to align with what this means to you. Perhaps you want to have the freedom to live and work from anywhere in the world within the next 5 years. - This is the spice of life!
#7. Uplevel your relationships. When we live authentically and in alignment with our values, we emanate a sense of genuineness that resonates with others, fostering deep and meaningful connections based on mutual respect and understanding.
Seek out relationships with those aligned with your values. This doesn't mean that all of your friends have to have the same fundamental beliefs as you, but it's important to have at least a few close relationships with people who share some of, or have similar core values. These relationships will provide support, encouragement, and inspiration as you strive towards living a life that is true to your values.
If you're a more socially introverted person and/or connection with large numbers of people isn't a value, give yourself permission to have a very small social circle.
Use your awareness of values to set healthy relationship boundaries. "Break up" with or (better yet) avoid relationships that are toxic, or misaligned with your values. (One person's toxic friend is another's best friend. It all comes down to core fundamental beliefs.)
In conclusion, the journey of uncovering our authentic selves through the identification and embrace of core personal values is a worthwhile endeavor that, if implemented consciously, enriches our lives with purpose, meaning, and integrity.
As you embark on this transformative journey, remember that the pursuit of authenticity and alignment with core values is not a destination but a continuous evolution—a commitment to honoring the truth of who we are.
About the Author
Angela Caveney, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, Neuropsychologist and Founder of The Trybe Women's Social Club. Her absolute favorite thing to do is to help women find their people and thrive throughout midlife. She can be reached directly at email@example.com.
(*Note. If The Trybe Women's Social Club is not in your location, reach out to Angela Caveney to start a conversation about creating a club where you live. Even if you don't know a single person in your new city, don't worry! This is a great way to start to meet new people fast. We'll provide the framework to get you started.)